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2008-2009 Western Conference Preview - The Playoff Teams

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Welcome to part two of my 6,500 word 2008-2009 Western Conference preview.  This covers the eight playoff teams and once again we get input from the best team bloggers in the business.

You can read my preview of the lottery teams here.

Team:  Los Angeles Lakers

Player With the Most to Prove:  Kobe Bryant – He has won titles and now an MVP, but he has yet to shake the “Can’t win without Shaq” label.

Worst Rotation Player:  Luke Walton – Most teams would be thrilled to say a player like Walton was their worst rotation player.

Potential “No (expletive deleted) Way!” Scenario:  Andrew Bynum decides that he cannot stand another big man getting in his way.  He drugs Pau Gasol in the locker room, shaves his beard and dumps him on a cargo plane bound for Guam.  Gasol comes to and cannot remember who he is due to the loss of his prized facial hair.

No Nonsense Hard Hitting Preview:  The Lakers may not win the NBA championship, but this team can handle injuries, they have a plethora of scoring options in the clutch and a pair of big men who can rebound and score in the paint.  Can you imagine just a year ago Kobe wanted off this train?

Projected Finish:  59-23 1st in the Pacific Division, 1st in the Western Conference

Question for Another Blogger:  It has been 20 years since the Detroit Pistons became the last team to lose in the finals and then come back to win it all the next season.  Do you believe the Lakers are the team to break that streak?

Answer from Kurt of Forum Blue and Gold:  The Lakers are well poised to end that streak. When you look back at the Finals losers of the last two decades they fall into two categories. One, good to very good teams that just ran into a dynasty (thing Utah teams from the 90s). The other is teams that overachieved for one year and couldn't maintain that level of play. The Lakers don't fall into that later category because they are better, deeper team now than a year ago. The return to health of Andrew Bynum and Trevor Ariza offer some of the toughness and defense they missed in the last Finals. As for the first scenario, the Celtics certainly will be good again (as good is up for debate) but nobody is going to confuse them with the 95-96 Bulls. You never know how things will play out, but the Lakers are in a good position to end that finals-losers streak.

 

Team:  New Orleans Hornets

Player With the Most to Prove:  Chris Paul – CP3 made the leap last season, but despite some serious MVP buzz and the first of what will probably be many assist titles, the Hornets only won one playoff series.  To truly enter into the group of elite players in the NBA he needs to take this team further.

Worst Rotation Player:  Mike James – The acquisition of James Posey is nice, but the loss of Janero Pargo means James will continue to be on the court other than during warm ups.

Potential “No (expletive deleted) Way!” Scenario:  Peja Stojakovic and Tyson Chandler both hurt their backs and doctors have to take parts from one of them to save the other.  Hornets fans are forced to vote online to decide who to save.  Peja ends up winning the poll after an inordinate amount of votes come in on his side at the last minute.  The votes are later traced to John Paxon’s office at the United Center (you know, because he screwed the Bulls by trading away Chandler and replacing him with Ben Wallace).

No Nonsense Hard Hitting Preview:  The Hornets are an easy team to cheer for.  They are good hard working guys who excel at what they do.  If Chris Paul can somehow continue to improve (can you imagine he is still only 23!) the sky is the limit for this team.

Projected Finish:  58-24 1st in the Southwest Division, 2nd in the Western Conference

Question for Another Blogger:  Now that the Hornets have had some success and came within a game of the Western Conference Finals do you believe this team has a championship culture in place to take the next step or is there still some sense of contentment with last season's tremendous improvement?

Answer from At the Hive:  I think the biggest contributing factor to a "championship culture" anywhere, any team, any sport is the presence of good players. From the front office down, the Hornets have done a terrific job assembling talent on this squad. So, in that sense, the championship culture is in place, even if the team has never advanced to even a Conference Finals. 

Chris Paul had a phrase at the beginning of last year- "No Excuses." By that, he meant that no matter what, the Hornets were going to make the playoffs. He mentioned specifically that even if David West were to go down, or Tyson Chandler were to go down, the team was going to the playoffs. That's the sort of drive that any fan wants to see in his players. When that level of dedication comes from the team's best player, it's that much better. 

Having seen that philosophy last year, I find it hard to believe that the team will get complacent this year. The biggest reason why the team won't have a sense of contentment over last year's improvement- the core has always been that good. The national media was shocked at the Hornets' ascent, but in reality, they were a Peja Stojakovic, David West, and Chris Paul injury from doing the exact same thing a year earlier. In a sense, last year wasn't an improvement at all, but rather a confirmation of what they already knew. 

 

Team:  Utah Jazz

Player With the Most to Prove:  Carlos Boozer – Boozer has been an All-Star, he has been a two time Olympian, he has put up back to back 20-10 seasons, but you still hear about how Utah will look to get rid of him after this season.  He is only 26 and, although he does have some holes in his game, is a key player for a team some project to win the west this season.

Worst Rotation Player:  Matt Harpring – Harpring has some skill.  He can knock down the midrange jumper and plays hard, but he is such an unabashed hack that he really should not be playing major minutes for a contender.

Potential “No (expletive deleted) Way!” Scenario:  Jerry Sloan finally gets tired of being a grumpy old man and decides that he wants to turn over a new leaf.  A kinder more loving Sloan gives his players hugs and holds birthday parties for everyone in the organization, complete with clowns and wiener dog races, even when no one is having a birthday.  The Jazz abruptly fall apart and end up finishing behind the Nuggets in the standings for the next 86 seasons.

No Nonsense Hard Hitting Preview:  Lord knows I hate the Jazz, but they are freakin’ good.

Projected Finish:  58-24 1st in the Northwest Division, 3rd in the Western Conference

Question for Another Blogger:  Can the Jazz make it to the NBA Finals without earning home court advantage in the playoffs?

Answer from Basketball John of SLC Dunk:  Unfortunately, I don't think so.  They've managed to get by the Rockets the past two seasons despite not having home-court.  They don't yet have that veteran capability to go on the road and steal a game or two.  They were a little bit better on the road in the second half of last year.  For whatever reason though, once they leave the shadows of the Wasatch Mountains, they're weakened. 

Maybe enjoying the NBA's greatest home-court advantage spoils you.  My solution; the Jazz need to buy all the tickets they can for road games and bus/fly Jazz fans around the country to ensure an NBA title.

 

Team:  Houston Rockets

Player With the Most to Prove:  Tracy McGrady – He has been amazing at times, merely good at others, but I cannot think of a more talented player who never made it past the first round of the playoffs.

Worst Rotation Player:  Luther Head – The Combo guard is not quite a good enough scorer t play the two, nor is he a good enough distributor to play the one.  In the end, he is not good enough overall to play at all for a contender.

Potential “No (expletive deleted) Way!” Scenario:  Yao Ming and Tracy McGrady play all 82 regular season games and then play in every post season game where they eventually lose in the first round after Yao and T-Mac collide and explode vying for a key rebound with 34 seconds left in game seven against the Jazz.

No Nonsense Hard Hitting Preview:  I believe the Ron Artest trade was the same type of go for broke deal that the AI trade was for Denver.  Rick Adelman is a very underrated coach and he did a tremendous job coaching this team to 55 wins even though Yao missed 27 games and McGrady missed 16.  Ron Artest should help get by when one of those two are out, but offensively he is a little to one on one oriented for a team who likes to work for a good shot on every possession.  Once again I think the Rockets have a great regular season and then flame out in the playoffs.

Projected Finish:  56-26 2nd in the Southwest Division, 4th in the Western Conference

Question for Another Blogger:  If the Rockets do not make some serious noise in the playoffs this season are Ron Artest and Tracy McGrady as good as gone?

Answer from Lee of The Dream Shake:  Tracy is an expiring contract for the 2010 year, one of the biggest free agent years the NBA has ever seen.  I can say that even with a championship it is very unlikely that he will be here after 2010, and without one, he's likely to be traded during 2010.  Artest will depend a lot on what happens.  If the Rockets have a rash of injuries, but Artest carries us through them, then I can see a serious scenario where the Rockets resign him for the long term and let him finish his career here.  If, and I do not believe this will happen, he's a big issue in the clubhouse or on the court, then the Rockets traded very little to take a flyer on a guy will all world skill and he's gone.  I don't think the playoffs will have too much to do with what happens.  Daryl Morey clearly feels that Artest is the exact guy he wanted as he's tried to trade for him multiple times before ultimately being successful.  If he's the Ron Artest I think he will be then he'll be a Rocket for a long while.

 

Team:  San Antonio Spurs

Player With the Most to Prove:  Ime Udoka – Honestly no one in San Antonio has to prove anything.  The trio of Duncan, Parker and Ginobili can never win another game together and still be remembered as one of the top teammates ever.  If the Spurs falter this season it will be either because of health or a pathetic supporting cast.  Amongst the supporters Udoka has the most to prove.  He was brought in to be a Bruce Bowen clone, but his defense is pourus and his shooting has been worse.

Worst Rotation Player:  Take your pick – Jacque Vaughn, Udoka, Bonner?

Potential “No (expletive deleted) Way!” Scenario:  After seeing a picture of his wife Eva without makeup Tony Parker flips out and starts going all French and begins to sleep around.  A lot.  As he focuses his time on scoring with local chicks his game goes to crap and with the retirement of Tim Duncan and the banishment of Manu Ginobili for accruing 50,000 points under the League’s anti flopping point system (no one else has more than 17 flopping points at the time of Manu’s eviction) the Spurs never make the playoffs again.

No Nonsense Hard Hitting Preview:  No one has ever become successful by writing off the Spurs, but I am having a difficult time seeing these guys put another finals run together.  Parker inproves every season, but Duncan is slipping ever so slightly and you have to wonder if Manu can keep bouncing back after so many injuries.

Projected Finish:  53-29 3rd in the Southwest Division, 5th in the Western Conference

Question for Another Blogger:  Is there any reason to expect the Spurs can win another championship this season other than the fact the finals will occur in an odd numbered year?

Answer from Aus Tech Spur of Pounding the Rock:  Of course there is reason to believe.  Tim, Tony, and Manu.  If the Spurs are healthy, they will be as tough an out in the playoffs as any other team.  Manu and Tony had their best seasons last year, and I don't see anything to think they will drop off precipitously.  The "odd year" championship is just a product of the fact the Spurs have put a very solid
team on the floor for the last 10 years.  Nothing more, nothing less. Injuries have prevented them from advancing in a lot of years, and injuries to other teams have benefitted them.  This year will be the same. There is too much balance among the powerful teams in the West for any team to suffer a significant injury and still get through.

All that being said, I don't have a warm fuzzy feeling about the team this year.  I think we will need several of the role guys to really develop and produce, and I'm not confident we are going to get it.  It's a long season and we have a couple of talented young players -- Hill and Mahinmi, and a couple of older guys -- Mason and Udoka, who might be able to give us a lift.  I hope they do, but I'm not confident.

 

Team:  Phoenix Suns

Player With the Most to Prove:  Amar’e Stoudemire – STAT (Standing Tall and Talented) has put up some serious numbers so far in his career, but he has never really earned the label of a winner.  He must learn to do the little things to make the team a success.   When he does an MVP trophy just might be awaiting him.

Worst Rotation Player:  Goran Dragic – I am tempted to say Shaq, but even though the big man is a shadow of his former self, there is still no one like him.  Dragic may turn out to be a nice player, but for a team that has been longing for a point guard to allow them to decrease Steve Nash’s minutes handing the back up job to an unproven rookie is quite a risk.

Potential “No (expletive deleted) Way!” Scenario:  When Shaq goes down early in the season the Suns look far and wide for an appropriate replacement, but where can you find a tubby, overpaid self obsessed big man?  After acquiring Jerome James in from the Knicks and giving him Shaq’s playing time the Suns lose over 60 games.  Steve Nash attempts to pacify fans during timeouts with his impressive soccer ball juggling routines, but even that is not enough to retain the interest of Suns fans.  The Suns never again appear on TNT, ESPN or ABC.

No Nonsense Hard Hitting Preview:  Phoenix is certainly on their way downhill and the Shaq trade has limited their future flexibility to rebuild around Amare.  I think these guys have at least one more playoff season in them before Nash collapses into a puddle of goo.

Projected Finish:  50-32 2nd in the Pacific Division, 6th in the Western Conference

Question for Another Blogger:  Did the D'Antoni Suns deserve one more run together or did Steve Kerr simply pull the plug on a team whose window had closed?

Answer from Phoenix Stan of Bright Side of the Sun:  Neither. D'Antoni refused to budge on some pretty reasonable requests that he spend about 30 minutes of practice time on defense and that he consider using a deeper rotation. He was stubborn and put his ideas over what was best for the team. He had "lost" Amare and was relying too much on Nash and in the process burning him out before the playoffs. Either the coach needed to change or the team needed to change the coach.

As far as windows closing I am not so sure. The team certainly has it's issues with age but Amare is the star player and is just entering his prime. He looks to be a top NBA point leader and the most efficient by far. The new offensive system will be less dependent on Nash and Hill is now a bench player. Bell is in his early thirties but the Suns have great depth at that position. My only concern is behind the aging and increasingly disruptive Shaq. Robin Lopez will be good but is still a rookie and behind that there is no other legit NBA center. No team is perfect in all positions.

New coach and new system and a greater emphasis on defense and pacing though out the long season will likely lead to a 6 or 7 seed. Then you never know. 

 

Team:  Denver Nuggets

Player With the Most to Prove:  Linas Kleiza – The Nuggets are not going to extend him before the deadline on Friday and he needs to earn a big money deal this season.  (Editor's note:  The Nuggets and Kleiza are working on a four year $24 million extension.)  Oh, wait.  It seems like I am forgetting someone.  Oh yea.  We all know the answer is Carmelo Anthony.  Once again we are hearing all the right things from Melo, but until he goes out and proves he has figured out how to win and not just produce stats Nugget fans will be skeptical.

Worst Rotation Player:  Anthony Carter/Chucky Atkins – Fortunately the Nuggets have players capable of initiating the offense, when they actually run a set other than pass to the wing and shoot, but George Karl is still committed to starting Carter.

Potential “No (expletive deleted) Way!” Scenario:  The economy bounces back and in an explosion of prosperity Stan Kronke decides that anextra several million dollars in luxury tax payments are no big deal and he authorizes the team to use the $10 million trade exception they acquire for Marcus Camby this season.  The Nuggets acquire Deron Williams who the Jazz ship out of town because he has threatened to blow up the Mormon Tabernacle if Jerry Sloan hugs him and pats the top of his head one more time.  The Nuggets then go on to win the NBA finals!  (Hey, if the Nuggets do not win a title in the “no (expletive delted) way” scenario, where else will they win one?)

No Nonsense Hard Hitting Preview:  Things I believe about the Nuggets.  They can be better without Marcus Camby.  They do not have to turn into the Boston Celtics on defense, but if they can just pay attention, be in the right places and make the correct rotations it will make a big difference.  With several players on the floor at the same time who can score the Nuggets can vastly improve their offensive efficiency by simply passing the ball around a couple more times per possession.  I believe that I will not believe they can do any of these things until I actually see it.  I believe they can still make the playoffs even if they do not do all those other things.

Projected Finish:  47-35 2nd in the Northwest Division, 7th in the Western Conference

Question for Another Blogger:  Do you have anything to add about the Nuggets?

Answer from Jeremy of Pickaxe and Roll:  I have rambled on enough, let’s just get the season started!

 

Team:  Portland Trail Blazers

Player With the Most to Prove:  Greg Oden – Expectations for the team and Oden himself are sky high.  No one expects him to be a stud right away, but everyone expects him to be very good right away.  What will the media say about Oden and the Blazers if he starts off averaging eight points and seven boards as the team is 6-8 after their first 14 games?  The media is a fickle mistress and Portland might find that out.

Worst Rotation Player:  Nicolas Batum – The rookie from France might be a great player someday, but the fact that he is starting for such a deep team is surprising.  Batum can reportedly get it done on defense and that is why he is out there, but he is certainly the weak link in a stout lineup.  (Editor's note:  Despite reports to the contrary Travis Outlaw ended up starting instad of Batum.)

Potential “No (expletive deleted) Way!” Scenario:  Brandon Roy and LaMarcus Aldridge are arrested for cat juggling (you know from The Jerk staring Steve Martin, you really should watch that movie).  Greg Oden is pulled over for an illegal turn and failing to signal.  Steve Blake is busted for sampling assorted nuts at the local grocery store.  A city weeps.

No Nonsense Hard Hitting Preview:  Portland probably has the brightest future of any team in the NBA, but the future is not quite now.  I think Portland make the playoffs more due to a collapse by the Mavericks than an amazing season by the Blazers.  By the way, did you know I thought Trail Blazers was all one word until just recently and I am paid to pay attention to these things.

Projected Finish:  46-36 3rd in the Northwest Division, 8th in the Western Conference

Question for Another Blogger:  Could high expectations hinder the development of a still very young Portland Trail Blazer team?

Answer from Dave of Blazer’s Edge:  High expectations shouldn't hinder the Blazers' season in the least.  Their sights are set firmly on making the playoffs and that's an achievable goal for them.  Anything more is several steps down the road at this point in a season where you have to take one game at a time.  The expectations created by fans and the media roll off of these guys' backs like water off a duck.  I don't think they'll listen to anybody but their coaches and themselves.

 

There you have it.  The top eight in the west.  Once again, thanks to al the team bloggers for their awesome insight.